Monday, April 22, 2024

Violence of demolition, politics of precarity

“In one minute, the whole life of a house ends.
The house murdered is also mass murder, even if vacant of its residents.
It is a mass grave for the basic elements needed to construct a building for meaning,

or for an insignificant poem in a time of war.” 

  — “The House Murdered” by Mahmoud Darwish  

The increasing state-sponsored violence in the country, through the demolition of houses of Muslim activists and protestors, is nothing less than a war against the religious minority. The demolition of a house is not simply the physical destruction of one’s material asset; it is the violation of one’s private space, dispossessing one of their sense of belonging and safety and an act of violence that engenders precarity and fear.

Yet, one sees that from Madhya Pradesh to Delhi, to Saharanpur and Allahabad, the targeted razing down of houses of Muslims, who are accused as “rioters”, is conveniently justified as “demolition of illegal house construction” by the state police and local authorities.

While the debate becomes whether the property was in fact legal or not, the state rationality— the bulldozing of a house of an activist/protestor on charges that it is “illegal”, is rendered normal and legally unsuspected.

That the state has the authority to destroy the private property of individuals if they are as much suspected as dissenters is the new normal in majoritarian India. Rajesh Kumar, the Police Superintendent from UP nonchalantly mentions that the accused “rioters” would be slapped with charges of National Security Act as well since they are deemed a “threat to the country’s security”.

Even the intervention of the Supreme Court, with orders to halt the demolition drive in the case of violence-hit Jahangirpuri in Delhi, is an exception, not the rule. The narrative of national security, the politics of spatial planning and the judicial complicity with majoritarian executive orders have institutionalized demolition drives as tools of state control.

However, the demolition drives are not simply the state’s backlash against dissent. It is a powerful tool of political governing to create absolute terror, generate an atmosphere of paralyzing fear and render Muslim lives into existential precarity and ontological insecurity. 

 In her work Total Domination, Hannah Arendt underscores the role of optics or “spectacle” in the exercise of brute power during Nazi Germany. The appalling spectacle of concentration camps and their inhumane practices became a means to furnish theoretical verification of the Nazi ideology. Moreover, the spectacle of violence was central to establishing total domination— the absolute transformation of human nature where spontaneity, creative impulse and agency are annihilated in a person.

The human personality becomes a mere thing, devoid of the ability to dissent. The hypervisibility of violence becomes an infrastructural necessity to institutionalize absolute terror.  In a similar parlance, the razing down of Muslim homes becomes a “spectacle” that serves to legitimize the Hindutva ideology— India as a Hindu Rashtra with no room for the Muslim other. Moreover, the optics of bulldozing becomes a political tool to engender fear and absolute terror, suspending Muslims into chronic ontological insecurity and psychological vulnerability.

Ontological security, as postulated by the sociologist Anthony Giddens, refers to an individual’s sense of order, security and continuity within a rapidly changing environment which offers a sense of agency and coherence to the individual.  It is the ability to produce one’s standard of living materially and socially and a desire for social continuity. The threat to one’s sense of belonging and identity and therefore the meaning of life is a threat to one’s ontological security. The demolition of one’s house, its protective materiality of roof and walls in effect demolishes the very conditions that constitute one’s home, identity, and a sense of security. Moreover, the demolition of houses is not only a form of violence that affects one’s family but also signifies violence against a community’s right to home and place and their assertion to safety, identity, and collective wellbeing. It is here where the debate ought to be— to locate the demolition of Muslim houses within a human rights framework, not only within the ambit of urban planning.

The demolition of one’s house dispossesses one of their homes and also the right to mourn the loss if the demolition is seen simply as rectification of errors of spatial planning, not as a human rights violation. It is important to question the illegality of demolitions, particularly in cases like Afreen Fatima’s, but demolitions need to be contextualized within a larger framework of dispossession of one’s right to home, a denial of one’s identity and the political use of precarity. 

  The bulldozing of houses represents a political framing of a condition of existing— precariousness. This ontological insecurity lies at the heart of hypervisible violence where lives under the threat of demolition become filled with fear and anxiety not just about the present, but about an unsettling future and the possibilities of violence in it.

The demolitions implicate not only the present, but also the future, not just the individual, but also the collective into a state of chronic precarity. While the demolition of houses renders targeted Muslim families and individuals into social precarity and psychological vulnerability, the politics of demolition makes a threatening future a part of the present lived reality for the larger Muslim community.  The use of vulnerability becomes central in the exercise of total domination. The majoritarian politics in the country today produces and uses precarity and ontological insecurity as tools of governance. 

While the politics of demolition elucidates the exercise of domination, it would be incorrect to conclude that the current dispensation is successful in its efforts of total domination i.e., dispossessing the individuals of their creative impulse, their agency and ability to dissent. The outpour of support, solidarity, resilience and even mobilization to question and condemn the demolitions are spaces, modalities, and platforms of resistance in the face of majoritarian domination.

The political use of precarity renders emotions of anxiety and fear dominant but it also becomes the fodder for practices of resistance and building agential capacities of hope, solidarity, and rebuilding. It is only through the everyday acts of hope and solidarity that the sites of violence and subjugation can accordingly become sites of resistance and affirmations.

Aishani Khurana is a PhD student at the University of Illinois, Chicago, majoring in social anthropology.

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